Describing the nation's immigration system as inept and indifferent, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski and Rep. Elijah E. Cummings announced legislation they said would streamline the process for soldiers seeking to become U.S. citizens.
The legislation was inspired by the death of Army Reserve Spc. Kendell K. Frederick, 21, of Randallstown, who was killed by a roadside bomb in Iraq on Oct. 19. Frederick, a native of Trinidad, moved to Baltimore County when he was 15. He died while returning from a trip off base to have fingerprints made for his U.S. citizenship application.
Frederick's parents said red tape and unsympathetic officials burdened their yearlong effort to gain citizenship for their son. Frederick was awarded citizenship posthumously. "It will probably take me the rest of my life to get over losing my son," said Frederick's mother, Michelle Murphy, after the announcement at Union Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Randallstown. "Right now, I just feel like something needs to be done so that other families don't have to go through what I did."
Cummings said the citizenship process is fraught with obstacles and unfair to soldiers.
"He spent a long time trying to become a U.S. citizen, but it took him about five minutes to become one after he died," said Cummings during the announcement.
"You should not have to die to become an American citizen while you are serving the United States of America. That's not the American way. That's not how we do it," he said.
Mikulski took the opportunity to chastise federal bureaucracy for derailing Frederick's application.
"Kendell was fighting for America, and yet the America he fought for would not allow him to become an American citizen," she said. "He was killed by a roadside bomb on his way to get his fingerprints taken to become an American citizen, but he was also killed by the botched bureaucracy of the immigration service."
Frederick's case highlights the struggles that many noncitizens face as active duty members of the military. Nearly 70,000 foreign-born residents are serving in the U.S. military, comprising 5 percent of all personnel, according to the Migration Policy Institute, a Washington think tank. About 2,800 are in the process of applying for citizenship, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services.
To enlist in the military, an immigrant must have a green card or legal permanent residency. About half of all foreign-born enlisted personnel are U.S. citizens, according to the Migration Policy Institute.
The Mikulski legislation would provide soldiers with advocates to walk them through the application, set up a toll-free help line specifically for military and their families, and require the Government Accountability Office to investigate the process.
It would also establish coordination between the military and immigration service.
Frederick needed fingerprints for his citizenship application, even though his fingerprints had been on file with the Department of Defense since he enlisted in 2001.
But the military and the nation's immigration service do not have the capacity to share that information, said Chris Bentley, a spokesman for USCIS. The Murphys said they were stunned by Frederick's death. He died after a processing problem caused him to venture off base a second time to provide fingerprints, his parents were told.
"He wanted to serve his country and make this country his own," said Kenmore Murphy, Frederick's stepfather. "Can you imagine being in Iraq and having to do applications for your citizenship with all that's going on over there? He should have been focusing on fighting a war."
On Monday, Mikulski sent a letter to Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, requesting the naturalization process be reformed for soldiers and that he personally apologize to Michelle Murphy. The Department of Homeland Security overseas the USCIS.
Chertoff's office referred inquiries to Bentley, who said Chertoff was planning a written response to Mikulski.
"We share in the family's grief in the death of Specialist Kendell Frederick, but at the same time we are troubled by the suggestion that any action on the part of USCIS led to Specialist Frederick's death," Bentley said.
The naturalization process for soldiers has been streamlined and is typically effective, he said. Soldiers become citizens in an average of 60 to 90 days, while the civilian applicants wait about a year, he said. And soldiers are not required to pay an application fee.
In 2002, an executive order lifted the mandatory waiting period for military personnel to apply for citizenship. Before that, soldiers were required to wait three years after receiving a green card. Civilian immigrants must wait five years.
Bentley blamed any snags on soldiers who have not followed the procedure correctly.
The Murphys say Frederick began his application with USCIS more than a year ago, but Bentley said the agency did not receive a complete application until August.
This fall, the Murphys received a letter from the Baltimore USCIS office informing Frederick of an appointment at the Baltimore office. When his mother called to tell the office her son was deployed in Iraq, she said a customer service representative told her Frederick would have to send a letter explaining why he would not be able to make the appointment.